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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

21 OCTOBER, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Artistry and Artifice: How the Jazz Icon Engineered His Own Image


“Ellington [was] a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.”

Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz icon Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, consumed by his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.

Even though he surrounded himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:

That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.

Behind closed doors: Composing at the Dorchester, his favorite London hotel, in 1963. Unposed offstage photos of Ellington are comparatively rare. He went out of his way to shape his public image to his liking—and to keep his private life out of the papers

His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:

Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:

He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.

Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:

For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

A different kind of black man: With Rex Stewart and the band, Philadelphia, 1939. Ellington’s immaculately polished onstage appearance was one of countless manifestations of his lifelong resolve to “act in behalf of the race”

And yet beneath the persona Ellington projected lay a person of swelling imperfection — he shamelessly “borrowed” creative material from his band musicians without sharing the royalties or accolades, and had ceaseless extramarital and extra-extramarital affairs, cheating on his wife Edna with his longterm lover Evie, on whom he cheated with countless other women. (So intense were the private passions around his publicly muzzled affairs that, at one point, Edna attacked him with a razor after finding out he had been sleeping with another woman, reportedly his Black and Tan co-star Fredi Washington. What Edna didn’t know was that Duke had a regular habit of checking into several hotels, handing out keys to different women, only later deciding which hotel room he wanted to ravage for the night.) Teachout puts it rather bluntly, but certainly not an unwarranted observation given the evidence of Ellington’s life:

Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art — and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.

Teachout cites the recollection of producer John Houseman, who worked with Ellington on his first Broadway show, Beggar’s Holiday:

At the time I worked with him the Duke had abandoned all attempts to organize his own life. Between late-night engagements with his band, concerts, recordings, interviews, composing and other activities he had turned over the scheduling of his days and nights to his wife, his manager and other associates. They woke him up when it was time, fed him, laid out the right clothes for him, transported and delivered him on time for whatever engagement he was committed to, picked him up, changed his clothes, delivered him once more, fed him again and finally put him to bed. In this way, he explained, by ceasing to concern himself with time and space, he was able to preserve his energy and his sanity.

And yet, Teachout argues, Houseman mistook Ellington’s meticulous manipulation of his people-machinery for mere passivity — instead, he was hard at work controlling every aspect of his life:

What Houseman did not see was that Ellington sought to exert the maximum possible amount of control over everyone in his life — by stealth. “What you need to do is wake up after two o’clock, make phone calls, but don’t move an inch,” he told [his son] Mercer Ellington. “Just lie flat on your back and phone, and tell everybody everything that has to be done, and lay all your plans without going out anywhere. . . . When you come downstairs you’ll have prepared your day, and you’ll be The Greatest!” After he died, Mercer found a handwritten note among his father’s papers in which Ellington summed himself up in three lapidary sentences: “No problem. I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”

His selfishness was unswerving, though it did not exclude benevolence, if only on his own terms.

Arthur Whetsel, Fredi Washington, and Duke Ellington in a publicity still from Black and Tan. While Black and Tan shows Washington dancing herself to death in the flimsiest of costumes, it also presents Ellington and the members of his band as serious, committed artists—an uncommon way for black jazzmen to be portrayed on-screen in 1929 and for many years afterward

Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:

He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.

Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:

Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.

Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:

He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.

In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

In addition to crafting his public personality, he was equally meticulous about his appearance. Always clad in the latest fashion, he straightened his hair and even wore a corset. His sleek “conk” hair style, however, was particularly paradoxical and a visceral testament to both his cultural obliviousness to anything other than himself and his choice of personal vanity over the civil rights cause he alleged to stand for:

Ellington wore his hair in a “conk,” a style created with a hair-straightening process that made use of hot lye. Straight hair, or “good hair,” was as highly valued by middle-class blacks of his generation as was light skin, and they were willing to endure much for it. Black newspapers were full of ads for products that promised to rid the user of “kinky woolly hair. . . . All hipsters in Harlem are using superior hair straightener.” No amount of shame was too much to bear in the quest for good hair. Every jar of Kongolene, one of the most popular hair-processing products of the day, was decorated with a logo on which the initials KKK were, fantastic as it may sound, clearly visible. Most of the top black bandleaders of the period, including Ellington and Cab Calloway, wore conks (Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton were prominent exceptions) long after the style had been repudiated by a new generation of politically conscious musicians. “We were against kinky hair in those days,” recalled the jazz trumpeter Joe Wilder. “We didn’t have better sense. . . . You know there was no pride in nappy hair in those days. We all wanted straight hair—we wanted people to think we had good hair.”

In time Malcolm X came to see the conk he had worn in his youth as an unnatural act of “self-degradation.” He wrote contemptuously of the practice in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taking care not to mention Ellington (whom he admired) by name: “You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called ‘upper class’ Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. . . . I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.” But Ellington would never stop straightening his hair, oblivious of the impression that it made on younger blacks for whom “good hair” was a badge of dishonor.

In another manifestation — perhaps the manifestation — of his paradoxical desire for wide public visibility and tightly controlled private invisibility, Ellington even wrote an autobiography, aptly titled Music Is My Mistress and released a year before his death. (How much of his decision was creative and how much commercial will remain a mystery, but Doubleday did pay him a $50,000 advance for it, equivalent to about $319,000 today.) But rather than using it as a final saving grace of honesty, Ellington used it to further conceal rather than reveal the truth of who he really was — perhaps, in a less cynical view, simply because it was a truth that eluded him more than anyone. Teachout finds the book’s intentional evasiveness especially frustrating:

He of all people should have left behind a frank memoir, one in which he told the story of how a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training managed to turn himself into a great composer — for that is what he was, and why he matters to us today.

And yet Teachout finds “at least one undeniable truth” revealed in the self-interview with which Ellington, this “improbably gaudy bird of paradise,” ends his autobiography:

Q. Can you keep from writing music? Do you write in spite of yourself?

A. I don’t know how strong the chains, cells, and bars are. I’ve never tried to escape.

But if an answer to Ellington’s elusive character is ever to be found, perhaps it offers itself up in the verse with which he closed Black, Brown and Beige, his multimovement piece about the black experience in America, which he spent a decade crafting — and more than a decade pitching for publicity, long before the piece was finished, or even started. The proclamation was intended as commentary on the question of race relations addressed by this particular piece and his general public persona, but it endures as one that ultimately reveals the agony of the private person who remained unseen, even by himself, beneath the public veneer of charisma and bravado:

And so, your song has stirred the souls
Of men in strange and distant places
The picture drawn by many hands
For many eyes of many races.
But did it ever speak to them
Of what you really are?

Still, it’s hard to judge Ellington’s tangle of paradoxes too harshly given it was merely a magnified — however exponentially — version of our shared humanity. As a 1944 New Yorker profile of him put it, he was a man who had “a stage self and a real self.” This is the thing: We all do — with those who live in the spotlight, the public persona and the private person are just much more easily delineated and discernible, the contrast between them thus starker. But all of us, especially today, are equally our own publicists as we craft our public personae with every Facebook status shared and every Instagram photo uploaded, using those increasingly as tools to conceal as much as to reveal. Fittingly, Rex Stewart remarked of Ellington that he had “apparently learned to give more of himself in public but less in private” — a tendency to which it’s all too easy to succumb as we too explore and manipulate our own boundaries of visibility and invisibility.

'He looks beat and kind of lonely': With Jimmy Hamilton, London, 1963

Dimensional, thoughtful, and rigorously researched, Duke is an enthralling read from cover to cover, revealing through the specificity of one conflicted life the universality of the human condition and our constant struggle for integration, for wholeness, for reining in our angels and our demons into a unity of self, both public and private.

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21 OCTOBER, 2013

Coleridge, Plagiarist


How to walk the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In his indispensable essay on memory, plagiarism, and the necessary forgettings of creativity, neurologist Oliver Sacks points to English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) as one of creative history’s most notorious perpetrators of plagiarism. In the altogether fascinating chronicle Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 (public library), biographer Richard Holmes unravels the psychological propensities of the poet’s mind that made his plagiarism possible — and, arguably, pleasurable — for him.

Coleridge’s plagiarisms began innocently enough: In his youth, he found himself enthralled by an obscure German book of spiritual meditations by Jean-Paul Richter, given to him by his friend Crabb Robinson, and began integrating Richter’s ideas into his own reflections as he was translating the German text. Holmes writes:

He drew comfort from Jean-Paul’s aphorisms and meditations in a particular way. He did not merely read and reflect on them, but incorporated them into his own Notebooks in various forms of translation, imitation, and reworked versions. … This method of privately translating and anthologizing Jean-Paul throws some light on the psychology of Coleridge’s later plagiarism. He had consciously used adapted translations in some of his earlier poetry. . . . But his prose translations from Jean-Paul suggest a less deliberate, more internalized process at work in his private Notebooks. It was almost as if, in “the long, long nights” of his study-bedroom at Hammersmith, he was holding a silent conversation with his confrère or brother-spirit in Leipzig.

In fact, this silent conversation — much akin to the marginalia that bond reader and writer — was for Coleridge a throbbing dialogue, which did include heavy borrowing, but also intellectual discourse and even dissent. In one instance, he called into question Jean-Paul’s overly sentimental analogies, writing to Robinson: “You admire, not the things combined, but the act of combination.” With this in mind, Holmes posits a caveat:

It would be absurd to describe Coleridge’s [private notebook] entries as any kind of plagiarism. But at the same time it is easy to see how, in other circumstances, use of such “adapted” material could open him up to such a charge. Coleridge was soon to find other German authors — notably A. W. Schlegel and Schelling — with whom he developed the same brotherly or symbiotic relationship. He read, translated, refined and expanded in his own way. But when he left the privacy of his study and published or lectured on the resulting text (without acknowledging his source) he inevitably opened himself up to the charge of plagiarism.

And open him up it did: This early practice of fusing his influences into his own private work — to the extent that any of our ideas are “our own” at all — congealed into a habit of mind that would render Coleridge chronically susceptible to plagiarism, whether conscious or not, in his public work. He was especially heavily influenced by Schelling, whose ideas permeated Coleridge’s magnum opus, his Biographia Literaria — at times with verbatim translations which Coleridge left unappropriated. Curiously, it was Crabb Robinson, a German scholar himself, who both acquainted Coleridge with his sources and first recognized the problem of plagiarism. And yet, rather than casting Coleridge’s borrowing in a black-and-white framework of morality, Robinson was able to see the grayscale of its psychological mechanisms. Holmes writes:

Significantly, [Robinson] did not consider it plagiarism, being fully aware of Coleridge’s vast background reading in German and British philosophy and criticism, and the originality of his particular interpretations. Moreover Coleridge was almost never dominated by his sources. Except in the particular case of Schelling, he never stole slavishly. His disagreements with German thought … produced his great originality of emphasis, those sudden developments of psychological insight, and vivid metaphorical explanation. He was always inspired to outdo his originals, to speculate further, to enquire more closely.

And yet the charges of plagiarism would become both more urgent and more inescapable by the time his Biographia was published in 1817. In it, Coleridge lifted entire passages from Schelling, word for word, without a sliver of attribution. But Holmes argues this was less a deliberate exercise in creative deception than a byproduct of Coleridge’s deteriorating mental health and weakening psychoemotional capacities. He had become addicted to opium, his addiction not only painfully blocking his bowels but also instilling in him crippling guilt and shame, and he had a falling out with William Wordsworth, his closest professional peer and likemind, as well as a dear friend and confidante. Holmes writes:

It cannot be a coincidence that this period corresponds to the worst time of his opium addiction, the extreme sense of his loss of Wordsworth, and the severest lack of professional self-confidence and feelings of almost paralyzing failure. At one level, then, plagiarism was a response to the profound, almost disabling anxiety and intellectual self-doubts. His German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.

This, perhaps, is the moral of Coleridge’s questionable relationship with originality — while creativity is all about connecting things, and we are, as Austin Kleon put it, a mashup of what we let into our lives, and all ideas are, as Mark Twain observed, substantially second-hand, the line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft is often fine, but learning to walk it both consciously and conscientiously is where true creative integrity lies.

The rest of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 is equally revelatory of one of modern history’s greatest lives and the extraordinary, complicated mind that inhabited it. Complement it with Coleridge on what a poem is.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Ray Bradbury on How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity


How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.

Susan Sontag argued that lists confer value and guarantee our existence. Umberto Eco saw in them “the origin of culture.” But lists, it turns out, might be a remarkably potent tool for jostling the muse into manifesting — a powerful trigger for that stage of unconscious processing so central to the creative process, where our mind-wandering makes magic happen.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:


Bradbury would later come to articulate his conviction that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing, but it was through these lists that he intuited the vital pattern-recognition machinery that fuels creativity. Echoing Einstein’s notion of “combinatory play,” Bradbury considers the true value of his list-making:

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”:


Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.

Bradbury, who has since shared timeless wisdom on withstanding the storm of rejection, recalls:

The tale was rejected by every science-fiction magazine because, after all, it was only a story about friendship being tested by circumstance, even though the circumstance was space travel. Mary Gnaedinger, at Famous Fantastic Mysteries, took one look at my story and published it. But, again, I was too young to see that “R is For Rocket” would be the kind of story that would make me as a science-fiction writer, admired by some, and criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fictions, I was a “people” writer, and to hell with that!

I went on making lists, having to do not only with night, nightmares, darkness, and objects in attics, but the toys that men play with in space, and the ideas I found in detective magazines.

Susan Sontag's list of her favorite things, illustrated. Click image for details.

But more than merely sharing the amusing story of his youth’s quirky habit, Bradbury believes this practice can be enormously beneficial for any writer, both practicing and aspiring, as a critical tool of self-discovery:

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He offers himself as a testament:

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.

It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.

He urges the aspiring writer:

Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…

Shortly before his death, Bradbury speaks to his official biographer, Sam Weller — who also conducted Bradbury’s lost Comic Con interview — and revisits the subject of list-making in a Paris Review interview:

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

(That’s exactly what Roland Barthes did in 1977, to a delightful effect.)

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a must-read in its entirety, and a fine addition to the collected advice of great writers. Complement it with Bradbury on writing with joy and this fantastic 1974 documentary on his fantastical mind.

For more wisdom on writing, see Stephen King on the art of “creative sleep,” Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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